Earlier this year the Metropolitan Police announced a re-examination of more than 100 murders in England and Wales which, they suspect, have been 'honour killings'. Cathy Nugent looks at this chilling phenomenon, and reviews a new novel which examines the effects of honour killing on a Pakistani community.
The UK police inquiry follows the headline-making conviction of Abdalla Yones, a Kurdish Muslim, for the murder of his 16-year-old daughter Heshu, after she formed a relationship with a man of whom he disapproved. The murder was an example of what a global and, it is said, a rising phenomenon. According to Gendercide Watch such killings have been reported in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Britain, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel-Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda.
In these countries long-standing 'traditions' hold at least some sway. Often done in the name of Islam, the killings are more exactly rooted in tribal and patriarchal societies, although their may be a correlation between tribal custom and Islamic law.
An 'honour killing', or sometimes 'honour injury', means using death or violence to enforce sexual and moral behaviour within a society. It is the conduct of women that has the greatest potential to bring 'dishonour' on the family in most societies rooted in tribal customs, and women bear the brunt of this violence.
In a tribal society the family may guarantee survival but women are also regarded as property, to be traded, given away, disposed of. Women embody the honour of the men to whom they belong: fathers, husbands, brothers. If there is a question mark over the virginity or chastity of a woman then that is a blot on a man's honour. That is not something for the man to 'live with' or endure in private. Honour must be defended and upheld in public - among family and neighbours. Hence the often highly public nature of some honour killings - women being stabbed to death in front of laughing, dancing crowds of men.
Women have been maimed and killed for a variety of reasons: 'illicit' relationships (real and imagined), or marrying men of their choice, or divorcing abusive husbands. Some women and even little girls have been killed if they are raped because they are deemed to have brought shame on their family.
Men are not supposed to escape punishment for 'dishonour', but they often do. Either that, or they pay compensation to the affected man in the form of money or other women. This way honour killings have provided some with opportunities to make money or conceal other crimes.
In November 1997 Mussarrat Bibi, a pregnant woman and mother to three children, was beaten to death by villagers in the Sheikupura district of Pakistan after rumours of her immoral behaviour spread. As it turned out, the rumours were put about by provocateurs and the real reason for her death was that she had refused to work for local landlords without payment.
Honour killings are an inhumanity in which both men and women participate. This account of a chilling episode in Jordan in 1997.
"One morning Rania Arafat's two aunts came to take her for a walk. They told their 21-year-old niece they had arranged a secret meeting with her boyfriend. She strolled with them through Gwiemeh, a poor suburb where Amman's concrete sprawl peters out into desert. When the three women reached a patch of open land, the aunts suddenly stepped aside, leaving Rania standing alone. She was shot four times in the back of the head at close range and once in the forehead. The gunman was her 17-year old brother, Rami." (Julian Borger, Manchester Guardian Weekly.)
What kind of society is it where both the men and women of a family show such inhumanity towards their own - in the name of social, religious, or family values. Brothers who kill sisters are spurred on by what exactly?
There are few societies today that are purely tribal. Most have felt the impact of economic and social change, have capitalist inequalities and class structures. In this situation certain sections of society may cling on to old traditions and will defend rules which are perceived to provide some social cohesion. Crimes take place within evolving societies and developing systems of discrimination against women within the family.
All of this must be made worse right now by the prevalence of crude and narrow religious teaching, a lack of good rational education and deepening poverty.
Under the impact of modern life the perception of what defiles honour has become very loose and indeed is used to back up more commonplace male violence in the home. A look is not just a look, it is evidence of adultery. Food not on the table is justification for the acid splashed in her face.
So honour killings and injuries are an extreme form of a much wider and infinitely more global phenomenon of violence against women. But extreme it is.
Often burning or scarring with acid are the preferred weapons of men seeking their 'redress'. In Bangladesh some 2,200 women are disfigured every year in acid attacks by jealous or estranged men. The Progressive Women's Association of Pakistan tracked 3,560 women who were hospitalised after being attacked at home with fire, petrol or acid between 1994 and 1999. About half the victims died.
The police in this country have been slow to take domestic crime seriously, but it has been many years since such crime was overlooked and it has not been actively sanctioned by the state for very many years. Not so elsewhere in the world.
In many cases deaths are not reported: murders are made to look like suicides and are covered up by families. While killings are not usually sanctioned in the laws of the land (except in Jordan), judges often mete out lighter sentences.
In Pakistan honour killings are said to be more common than anywhere else in the world and are based on deeply rooted attitudes which will be very difficult to shift. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported in 1998: "Woman's subordination remained so routine by custom and traditions, and even putatively by religion, that much of the endemic domestic violence against her was considered normal behaviour ... A sample survey showed 82 per cent of women in rural Punjab feared violence resulting from husband's displeasure over minor matters; in the most developed areas 52 per cent admitted being beaten by husbands."
Everywhere there are campaigns to stop these outrages but they are for the time being minority voices, their impact not strong enough to change society.
In August 1999 Benazhir Butto tried to push through a motion in the Pakistani Senate condemning 'honour killings'. It was rejected. The current military ruler of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf is fond of expressing little sympathy for 'tradition' or 'religion' and has publicly condemned 'honour killings', but these views are unlikely to find much expression in law.
Until recently Jordan's criminal code gave an exemption from death sentence for honour crimes against adulterous women. This has now been rectified, but it is hardly the kind of justice socialists, feminists and progressive people look for! Jordanian judges still have discretion to mete out lower sentences in some cases.
Women are isolated, have few options and nowhere to hid. There are few women's shelters anywhere in the world and any woman attempting to travel on her own is a target for abuse by police and strangers. Some women do indeed choose suicide as a means of escape.
Surely it is the job of the left to fight for a society that fights the religious obscurantism, cultural backwardness and grinding poverty that make life such a fearful hell for so many women.